The Last Duel (2021)

I feel for Ridley Scott. I really do.

Of late, the rightfully revered director (and one of my personal favorites) has been unfairly lambasted for the last decade for many of his recent directorial efforts. Now I’m not saying that some of the criticism hasn’t been warranted, as in some cases, it most certainly has been. But I still hold that a bad Ridley Scott film is frequently more enjoyable than MANY of the current crop of directors’ ‘good’ films…except The Counselor (2013)…which is mostly fucking awful (why and how, Ridley…why and how?!). Just his consistent visual panache alone grants him a get-out-of-jail-free card, in my opinion.

But that same beloved visual flair has also, amazingly, become the roots of some of the critique against him, with many film snobs arguing the old ‘style over substance’ motif. And sometimes, they’re not wrong.

But I digress.

Ridley Scott has quite a varied filmography and has tackled many different storylines and themes over the years but one film type he always seems to naturally gravitate back toward is the Historical Drama and some of those have been some of his most accomplished works. Hell, his first ever feature film, 1977’s impressive and coincidentally named The Duellists holds a similar idea, only set in a vividly realized period during the Napoleonic Wars. Two other exemplary examples that immediately spring to mind are Gladiator (2000) and the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven (2005).

In my opinion, this film is one of those and it’s a crying shame that The Last Duel bombed as badly as it did, to the sad tune of a mere $30 million Box Office take, against an estimated $100 million production budget (ouch!and that’s not even taking marketing into account). Now, that…fucking…sucks…as this film turned out to be a solidly mounted and engrossing character study / historical epic that ticked off all the right ‘Ridley Scott’ boxes and sucked me right into the drama.

Written by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Nicole Holofcener, The Last Duel refers to the last crown-sanctioned duel to the death in France in the early 1300’s. The story, as told in three distinct chapters, follows two former friends and comrades in arms, ‘Jean de Carrouge’ (Matt Damon) and ‘Jacque Le Gris’ (Adam Driver) as they jockey for favor and influence from local lord and notorious hedonist (and cousin of the king) ‘Pierre D’Alencon’ (Ben Affleck), in the face of economic hardship and fortunes / misfortunes of status. This brings the men on a collision course with destiny, a course that gives rise to a shocking allegation of rape against ‘Le Gris’ from ‘Carrouges’ beautiful and capable wife ‘Marguerite’ (Jodie Comer). The complex judicial maneuvers and maddening sexual politics of the day give rise to the machinations leading to The Last Duel.

Given how I felt when the credits finally rolled at the end of the film’s 2 hour 35 minute run-time, I wish I’d been given the chance to see this one on The Big Screen, to try and contribute in some way to helping this flick succeed. But alas, t’wasn’t meant to be. Even if this goddamn COVID-19 bullshit wasn’t having me second guess every inkling I get about FINALLY getting back into a movie theatre, it just so happened that it simply wasn’t shown at the small multi-plex here in my quiet little sea-side town, so the chance was never afforded to me in the first place.

But bless the powers that be for the multitude of streaming services now clogging up the InterWebz, as I was able to find this criminally under-looked masterpiece on a cold, foggy Sunday morning. SO, while my wife and our two four-legged girls slumbered, I brewed up a pot of strong coffee, grabbed my note-pad, and hit PLAY.

Here lie scribbles…

Solid intro. Shades of Kingdom of Heaven. Ridley’s underappreciated Crusade’s masterpiece (Director’s Cut ONLY, thank you very much!) is a tough-to-beat example of Historical Drama brought to life by impeccable cinematography and production design. From an atmosphere and style perspective, these two flicks could easily form a cinematic universe. Good start, right off the bat. Though, I’m not surprised. Sir Scott is a master of Opening Scenes, and this one captivated my attention immediately.

Naturalistic dialogue. And what I mean by ‘naturalistic’ was simply the relatable ‘common man’isms that wove in and out of the…ahem…old timey dialogue stylings – small jokes and banter, or well-placed sarcasm or charm, little elements that added a certain humanistic tangibility to the ‘world’ of the story and how the characters move through it.

Battle scenes brutal. We are treated to a couple short but brutal battle sequences in Act One that could effortlessly rub shoulders with similar sequences in Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and even Robin Hood (2010). Bloody and kinetic stuff. Me likes!

As expected, attention to detail terrific. Any fan of Ridley’s work will know what I’m talking about – a consistently gritty, world-building production design, grounded in a slick kind of relatable reality. It’s one of those aspects that goes a long way to promote Scott’s signature style, and that of his equally talented late brother Tony Scott (True Romance) and you could see it in every frame of this film.

Some time jumps a bit jarring, but unavoidable. This film spans several years and there are moments where the narrative leaps from year to year. Looking back, I think my initial scribble was incorrect…I think some well-timed use of fades for scene transitions would’ve gone a lot further to lend to the feeling of the passage of time, further bolstering the overall epic feel. As it stands, I can’t help but to think of Deleted Scenes and when it comes to Ridley Scott films, exorcised material is almost always coveted, and usually with good reason. That being said, however, I honestly don’t think this film needs one, as opposed to what happened with Kingdom of Heaven in 2005, when it was painfully obvious that the movie had been chopped to shit against Ridley’s will. I think at 2 and a half hours, this story is paced very nicely and is lean enough to help even a novice viewer through the complexities. This film felt…complete, when it ended.

Love the small ‘human’ touches. This goes back to my earlier observation about the relatable mannerisms of the characters sprinkled in among the speech and trappings of the time period and how it made the interactivity feel more dynamic and…well…human.

Affleck is hilarious. Ben Affleck (The Accountant) has been very open about his personal struggles with alcoholism and there was something almost meta about taking in his portrayal of the perpetually imbibing  and whoring ‘Pierre’, always with a smile and a swagger. He was at times chuckle-out-loud funny and a solid contrast to his best friend Matt Damon’s appropriately dour portrayal of the perpetually unlucky ‘Carrouge’.

Adam Driver – Solid. I’ll be honest, I’ve never given Adam Driver (The Force Awakens) much regard, not understanding the thing the women seem to see in the dude and not finding his acting to be anything worth blowing my skirt up about. However, he was really good here as the primary antagonist ‘Le Gris’; a highly ‘grey’ character with enough charm and animation to entice you in but once certain things come to light, a certain level of ‘sinister’ encroaches, sullying his well-cultivated image.

Reminds of The Duellists. I already mentioned Scott’s first film earlier but titles aside, there is a certain similarity between films, looking past the differing time periods. Both focus on a several year-long grudge that brings two men of distinction into a conflict that will ultimately be decided by violent means. And both are damn good!

Music very good. No surprise there. Composing the score is a Ridley Scott mainstay, Harry Gregson-Williams, who also composed the excellent score for…no surprise…Kingdom of Heaven. Tonally appropriate and grand. Another win!

The 3 perspectives are an engaging device. As already noted, The Last Duel is told in three chapters, each from the viewpoint of the three main players, Damon’s ‘Carrouge’, Driver’s ‘Le Gris’ and Comer’s ‘Margeurite’, and it’s interesting to note the subtle differences in how each version is told. It also served to keep me further engaged in the narrative. A device well utilized.

Jodie Comer – Charming performance. Feel sorry for her character. Before sitting down with this movie, I was unaware of Comer as an actress but I think her casting here was a solid choice, as I find she gave ‘Marguerite’ nuance and charm and despite what happened to her, she didn’t wilt, with obvious defiance and strength of spirit lurking just below the surface. In that sense, I was reminded of Jessica Lange’s character ‘Mary’ in the 1995’s superb Rob Roy, where despite enduring a similar demeaning experience, she pushes forward with strength and resolve. Overall, I found Comer’s performance refreshing, despite feeling bad about the series of undeserved indignities that get visited upon her, and I hope it yields her more Big Budget work, despite The Last Duel‘s lousy financial performance.

Grievous wound? During the titular battle, one character takes what looked like a horrible stab wound into the inner thigh…you know…the same neighborhood as that pesky femoral artery? Yes, the one that will likely bleed you to death in mere minutes if immediate medical help isn’t sought? But…nope. Almost kinda just walks it off.

After a little research, I found that this did, in fact, happen. But as soon as the duel was complete, pages rushed in to bind and bandage the wound and the man lived for many years after. That’s not what we see onscreen, he just hobbles off. *shrugs*

This flick did NOT deserve to bomb! Kinda sums it up right there, don’t it.

And there you have it.

The Last Duel is a movie that everyone involved with deserves to be proud of, especially Ridley Scott, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. A lot of work went into this masterfully executed film and it breaks my heart that it landed with as hefty a *thud* as it did. I understand why Scott is coming off like an angry old man these days, yelling at kids (or Millenials, specifically) to get off his lawn – if a Big Budget movie that I helmed with this much focus and dedication, and was legitimately good, died on delivery because the brain-dead masses were only interested in the never-ending and unavoidable spew of superhero / sequel bullshit the major studios are all puking up these days, I’d be pissed too!

To be honest, there’s very little in the way of Negatives that I can lay on this one. As mentioned, some editing transitions could’ve been polished up a bit to help the narrative and should you look through the prism of the #Metoo Movement, maybe a story about rape, no matter how factual and epically mounted, could be viewed as badly timed or in poor taste, but overall…I, personally, didn’t feel that and was very satisfied with the movie as just a movie, not the bearer of some lofty message feeding off the cultural outrages of today.

If you’re a fan of Ridley Scott’s output, both old and new, particularly his period piece entries, then this is a title for you! It visually has everything you’d want in a Ridley Scott film, while telling a relevant tale based on recorded historical fact. I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Duel and can guarantee that not only will I watch this one again some day, I will be adding the Blu ray to my collection in a bid to get even a couple more $’s to this unfairly shit-upon film’s box office take. It, and everyone involved with it, deserved better.

So, lords and ladies, I recommend you protect your honor and engage in The Last Duel!!

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